Stories of offseason heroes litter forgotten NFL history.
Turn on the TV, pick up a paper, check your Twitter feeds. There are unknown or unexpected players across the country lighting up fields in NFL cities right, setting the league abuzz. Every player is in the best shape of his life, and every defense is “flying around, making plays.”
Hope doesn’t spring eternal. Hope is all that exists during the spring.
In many cities, the offseason heroes will shine brightly for a little while. But they will eventually wilt under a buckling stem not strong enough to support the hype, ultimately buried under the concrete grave of unmet expectations.
The select few will find a crack in the slab to rise through and blossom against all odds. R.J. Harris is hoping to be one of the select few.
The undrafted wide receiver out of the University of New Hampshire isn’t new to this game. He’s been here before, serving as an early darling during organized team activities and training camp last year.
With his combination of speed, agility and solid hands, the wide receiver was an easy player to identify last summer. He performed throughout the offseason but was jumped during camp by Willie Snead, who made the roster and finished last season just shy of 1,000 yards.
Harris is back, and he wants to make a team. He’s been lighting up organized team activities, flashing a few times during the first session open to media last week, and on Thursday opened up the eyes of anyone still sleeping on him by making a few incredible plays.
His biggest moment came when he got an inch on a cornerback down the sideline and reeled in a one-handed pass from Garrett Grayson in tight coverage. The play was worthy of a highlight show and would have spread across the Internet if it had been caught on Vine. The team noticed.
“He’s smart and made a really good play down the sideline in that last team period,” coach Sean Payton said. “We saw some of that even a year ago, and it’s good to see a player like him in his second year showing signs of progress and obviously playing with a lot more confidence because he knows what he’s doing.”
That familiarity is why Harris is back here after finishing last season on the Falcons’ practice squad. He felt comfortable with Saints players and has developed relationships with some players. He has a solid grasp on the playbook. But the most important thing is that there’s proof of concept all around him.
All Harris has to do is look left or right to see examples of players who built careers in New Orleans after entering the league as undrafted players. Just in the receivers room Brandon Coleman and Snead provide recent examples.
“It’s a lot of motivation. It just gives me hope and confidence to know that just because you’re undrafted, that doesn’t mean you can’t make it,” Harris said. “There’s always opportunity out there to make plays. Like I said, Coleman did it; Snead has done it. Now I’m just trying to take that step.”
He added: “We kind of came from the same background, undrafted, we try to sneak in the back door. Snead went through three different teams. I was cut a couple of times.”
Harris will have the opportunity to make plays. He’s doing it already. The question is whether the sum of those moments will be enough to get him on the roster.
It’s not going to be easy. Brandin Cooks, Snead and second-round pick Michael Thomas are all locks to make the roster, and it would be a huge surprise if Brandon Coleman isn’t on the team. That could leave one spot up for grabs for the likes of Harris and several others who are looking to make a name this offseason.
It could also be there isn’t a fifth spot, depending on how the roster is constructed.
But Harris says he’s prepared to fight for his spot. After putting up a solid fight last year, he says he feels even more prepared this year.
“So much more confident. The biggest thing is obviously the playbook,” he said. “Being undrafted you have to pick it up fast. Last year, that was kind of where I was at. I was trying to learn the playbook while making plays. This year, I have the playbook — I’m not going to say completely down — but I feel a lot more comfortable in the playbook and that allows me to go out there freely and make plays.”
He’s here. He’s doing that. The summer is long, and the heat has a way of melting away all the ingredients that don’t belong. But at the very least, at this early juncture, Harris appears to have given himself a chance.
For some guys, that’s all they need.